by Bryce Marley-Jarrett
Today Japlanning are taking a look at one of the biggest sights in Japan, The Imperial Palace. Home to the emperor of Japan and his family, these massive grounds are open to the public just twice a year, unless you get on a tour. Luckily Japlanning have the hook up to tell you how easily you can get on a free tour and witness the beauty of these grounds, and learn its rich history for yourself.
Now you may be thinking: the palace must be thousands of years old? Well, not quite. Actually the imperial palace is quite new, with it becoming the official residence of the emperor of Japan in 1888 when the emperor moved into the newly completed palace from the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, which was the imperial capital of Japan for thousands of years prior.
The Imperial Palace in Tokyo was actually built on the grounds of the former Edo Castle in central Edo (Now known as Tokyo). The castle was home to Tokugawa Shogun, who ruled over Japan from the 1600’s until overthrown in the 1860’s. When overthrown the grounds were converted to the new imperial palace in Japan, and officially the residence of the Imperial family.
The palace has looked very similar since its construction, with new inner buildings added that show some spectacular architecture styles from the last century. The palace was destroyed during World War 2, however rebuilt in the same style.
During the 80’s, the land was estimated to be valued at more than all the real estate combined in California!
The best outside views of the palace are from the large plaza outside the imperial palace known as the Kokyo Gaien. Here you will be able to see the Meganebashi and Nijubashi bridges that frame the entrance to the inner grounds of the imperial palace, with part of the Imperial palace seen on the hill in the background.
This frames up for a spectacular image that people recognise as the Imperial Palace around the world.
To get to the Imperial Palace Kokyo Gaien area and entrance to the palace and gardens, follow the signs from Otemachi Station or Tokyo Station to the exit for the imperial palace. Total walk time - 10 minutes
Getting inside the Imperial Palace Grounds.
Now the outside of the palace grounds are spectacular, the beautifully massive stone walls with moat surrounding the entire grounds is wonderful without even stepping inside, however don’t let that stop you!
There are two ways to get inside the palace grounds.
The first is when the inner grounds are open to the public twice a year. no appointment is necessary for this, but be aware that people turn up in the tens of thousands.
On January 2nd each year they are open for the Emperor’s new years greeting, where thousands line up outside the Chowaden reception hall, and the imperial family steps out several times during the day to greet the public in an official manner and wish them a prosperous new year.
The other time is on the Emperor’s birthday, currently December 23rd. With the same style of greeting from the Imperial family several times in the day.
The second way to get inside the palace walls is to book yourself on a tour by the Imperial Household Agency. These tours are run most weekdays at 10:00am and 1:30pm and you must book in advance (the earlier the better).
The tours are conducted in Japanese by a guide, however you will receive a detailed map and guide in English as well as an English audio set to put on and follow along.
The tour doesn’t take you into any buildings on the ground besides the initial set up in the Imperial Household Agency office, where you will see a introduction video, and be shown lockers for you to leave any bags you have, and a small shop to purchase official palace merchandise. The tour takes about an hour and fifteen minutes and you will be taken past many iconic buildings including the reception hall and also down to the two bridges you see from the plaza on the other side.
The Audio guide is very fascinating and gives a great history of all buildings and also fauna you will pass. The groups are about 50 people, so it feels a little impersonal, however the personal audio guide in English certainly helps it feel more intimate!
To book yourself on a guided tour of the Imperial Palace grounds visit the Imperial Household Agency’s official website here, and follow the links to book your tour.
If a guided tour of the Imperial Palace is not your style, and you prefer to wander at your own pace, there is still another option that is beautiful; The Imperial Palace East Gardens. The east gardens are open to the public most days and are free. The gardens site mainly on the former site of the Edo Castle’s inner circles. Although none of the buildings from the Edo Castle remain, there are still remnants of the foundation that can be found in the gardens.
These stunning gardens show the finest examples of decorative Japanese gardens with plant species from all over the country. You’ll also see traditional buildings as you get to walk behind the mammoth walls surrounding the palace.
One of the buildings you may get a glimpse of is the Imperial Palace’s Music Hall, the Tōkagakudō. This music hall was built in the 1960’s and shows the distinct architectural influences of the time, with wonderful murals on each side.
The East gardens are a wonderful escape from the sometimes hustle and bustle of the streets of Tokyo, with serene gardens, and traditional buildings to get lost in.
The Imperial Palace East Gardens are closed on Mondays and Fridays, unless one is a public holiday, than they are closed the following day instead. Admission is free and they open from 9:00am to 4:30pm.
To access the East gardens, take a train to Otemachi Station and it’s just a short walk to the Otemon entrance of the gardens. Alternatively it is a 15 minute walk from Tokyo Station (and a beautiful walk too.)